A Dog’s Life: Pedagogical Flaws in Repetitive Piano Practice for Autistic Students

Cognitive Neuroscience researchers from Carnegie Mellon University published an article titled, “Training by Repetition Actually Prevents Learning for Those with Autism” which discusses their research. flashcardsThis article initially begins with an offensive stereotype about autistic people not being able to learn that a dog is a dog, just from being shown a photo of it every day. Their learning is not “fixed and inflexible” but rather, the insistence of the educator is fixated on the inflexible notion that *this* is the *best* way to teach.

Finally, researchers are looking into “the potential reasons for their restricted, atypical learning”, wondering if there was something more to it. Investigations into the repetitive nature of today’s educational standards, (“Johnny, this is a dog. Say, dooooooooooooog. Good job”) revealed “an interference in learning that may reflect the consequences of extensive repetition”.

I give piano lessons to nonverbal and autistic students globally and I caution against repetitive piano practice. There are many reasons for it. At first, it begins with the neural circuitry responsible for the heightened abilities of the perfect pitch possessor. Such a student will be relying on their ear to create sound. In order for the student to learn to trust that the notes in front of him are there to help him and not slow him down, we need to build a love-love relationship with the book. The presentation of the material must be achievable, (under-teaching at first), but also unfamiliar, so that there is an element of challenge (over-teaching). By layering the music with singing and accompanying, we make the learning an interactive and pleasurable sound-creating experience.

By skipping a day after the aroused learning state, we allow the brain to go into the resting state in order to solidify the brain connections just made. By forcing students to practice scales every day for hours before they even understand why and how it applies to the Mozart piece they will learn in four years, you are breaking down the innate desire to pound it out and have some fun. Again, this applies to students who are autistic, have perfect pitch, and/or are aural learners—nearly 100% in the autistic population (Kupferstein & Walsh, 2015). Rather, we start with 1-5 minutes of practice every other day, and increase as needed, and usually 5-10 minutes by the time we are in level 2 of note-reading. We don’t want the kids to play from auditory memory. We want them reading and playing, which only happens if the material is challenging and fresh.

The study finally gets on track in the end: “Our conclusion is that breaks in repetition allow the visual system some time to rest and allow autistic individuals to learn efficiently and to then generalize,” said New York University’s David Heeger. “Repeated stimulation leads to sensory adaptation which interferes with learning and makes learning specific to the adapted conditions. Without adaptation, learning is more efficient and can be generalized.”

Back to the dog example: “in the context of learning what a dog is, using a full range of examples of dogs — and even of animals, more generally — incorporates variability from the beginning and promotes learning a broad concept rather than a specific example.” When I first read the dog example, I cringed. My reaction was, “Seriously? You’re going to teach one dog at a time, and wonder why a kid doesn’t learn about other dogs?” That’s the same as teaching only the C for the first eight weeks (in all variations of rhythm), and then week number nine, introducing the D. When you introduce the D, you then wonder why the kid doesn’t understand to use the correct fingers. Out of context, the concept is not relevant to the aural learner.

Autistic people learn from patterns. Show them more, and they learn faster. Break it down and repeat the same thing, and they will shut down. Show them five letters (which are patterned to match their five fingers) in the first lesson, and they’re flying away with it.


By: Henny Kupferstein, HennyK.com
October 9, 2015

Also read: Before You Pay for Piano Lessons: Little Johnny’s Bill of Rights Problems With the Genius and Apprenticeship Model in the Teacher-Centered Piano Pedagogy Traditions of a Previous Era